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How not-so-random acts of kindness from strangers – Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall

transformed my latest air travel odyssey

Molly T. Marshall

One thing any experienced traveler learns is that other travel veterans can always trump your “worst trip ever” stories. I just endured one of those “eventful” overseas flight experiences, but this journey also introduced me to strangers who offered this Baptist theologian a few reminders about kindness and compassion.

My annual pilgrimage to Myanmar did not have an auspicious start. I left Kansas City early Friday morning headed for Seattle, then Seoul and then ultimately Yangon. Fog shrouded Seattle and planes could not land, so our flight was diverted to Eugene, Oregon, where we sat in the plane nearly four hours waiting for fuel and a landing time.

Trying not to be too anxious, reluctantly relinquishing control over the logistics, I kept my eyes on my app. Sure enough, I received notification that my flight to South Korea had taken off without me.

One of the flight attendants demonstrated impressive emotional intelligence. She came by with water and empathy in generous servings, and she helped us see the humor in our situation. Who would not want to spend time viewing the surrounding mountains through the small windows of our plane?

At this point I wondered if I should have heeded the admonition of friends who thought perhaps this trip to Myanmar was ill-conceived as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. With my usual stubbornness, I said all will be well.

Indeed, all would be well, thanks to the kindness of strangers who use their professions as a place of caring and service.

Arriving in Seattle, I headed to an airline club to get rescheduled, if possible. Many had missed connections, and agents were pressed to fulfill our requests. A young woman of Asian descent took up my case and worked for several hours to get me re-booked. She told me to go get some food; she would find me when she had completed the task.

It takes fortitude to do methodical work pleasantly when you are facing a long line of anxious, weary and impatient customers clamoring for attention. I had plenty of time to observe her as I spent the next eight hours awaiting my flight.

“It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way.”

Flying back to Detroit on a red-eye would allow me to catch a midday flight to Seoul; it was my best option. Again, with a long stint in an airline club (I’m thankful for the thousands of frequent flyer miles that qualify me for this amenity), I met a remarkable person. As one of the attendants who collects the cups and glasses and newspapers of the guests in the travel lounge, this tall, African American woman circled around to check on me several times.

She asked what I was doing, and I told her a bit of my travel challenges. She said God had placed her there to work so that she could notice God’s people and encourage them. While others may render her invisible as she goes about her routine tasks, she is perceptively observing those who come through her section of the club.

I teared up at her kindness and witness of faith, and she offered a prophetic word as if she could peer into my very soul. Sensing that I was burdened about some matters, she firmly said, “God has got this.”

She disappeared to complete other tasks, and I could not find her when I needed to leave for my flight. It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way; and, of course, God had her busy noticing and encouraging some other inconvenienced traveler.

When I arrived in Seoul, I met another ministering spirit. The usually bustling Incheon Airport felt a bit like a ghost town as fear of the virus has slowed travel dramatically. Everyone was wearing masks, trying not to get too near anyone else, and viewing others with furtive suspicion.

Once again, I had to spend a couple of hours waiting in an airline club. Upon entering, I encountered a mask-free, smiling young Korean man with a most hospitable attitude. His capacity to welcome guests, anticipate their needs and seem genuinely interested in each was contagious. I asked him why he served as he did, and he said it was because of his faith in Jesus. He wanted to be like him in how he treated people.

Finally, there is no greater kindness than to be met by a friend at the end of a long journey. By now, my travel had lasted about two-and-a-half days. Arriving in Yangon, there was a flurry of activity as a medical agent took each passenger’s temperature, and an extra step was added as a medical form was examined prior to going through customs.

Emerging from the chaos of collecting baggage and the throngs of persons awaiting their passengers, I searched the crowd for my Myanmar Institute of Theology colleague. Soon he was by my side helping me thread our way to find our driver.

“You must be tired,” he said, acknowledging that I was arriving a day later than originally planned. His kind words and pastoral attention reminded me yet again how important our caring is in helping others manage their challenges.

During the first week of this Lenten season, I have been the beneficiary of unanticipated, but not-so-random acts of kindness from sisters and brothers who are my fellow travelers in the compassionate way of Jesus.

I wonder what the trip home has in store.

 

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Let’s bury the patriarchal narrative in American culture. Rev. Dr. Marshall

 

Molly T. MarshallHow tiresome is the perspective voiced by churches, political campaigns and businesses when they say something like, “We need a strong leader,” followed by something like, “We are not ready for a woman as pastor, or president or CEO.” While we may celebrate the strides toward equality, we know that achieving gender and racial parity in all realms of life remains more aspirational than reality.

I have been devouring a recent book by Leslie Dorrough Smith entitled Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity. If that title is not arresting enough, her thesis surely is. She contends that:

“… evangelical rhetoric provides the cultural template for the moral promotion of sexual men and the moral condemnation of sexual women when situated within particular racial contexts. This influence enables Americans to excuse certain politicians for their sexual misbehavior so long as they conform to other critical aspects of ideal male identity.”

Of course, ideal male identity in the United States remains white, heterosexual and given to “family values” (even while their behavior contradicts this supposed conviction). Smith’s book is full of examples.

Through examining the varied sex scandals of recent decades – which include the likes of Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas; Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky; Roy Moore/young or underage women; Rudy Giulani/several wives; Newt Gingrich/several wives; Donald Trump/varied liaisons and several wives; and Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford – the author perceptively argues that the national discourse wants to reinforce the narrative of the white, heterosexual, hypersexually driven man who is, simultaneously, a wholesome father figure with great moral integrity.

It is surely a double standard, and it sustains the patriarchal narrative.

“Patriarchy is not just about gendered relationships; it is also about race.”

Why does the public overlook such scandals and give these men a pass even while using the rhetoric of sin and need for redemption? Because American culture is patriarchal to the core, believing that only a strong red-blooded white male can protect national interests. If that means accepting or overlooking his sexual exploits, so be it. Religious rhetoric that sees men as the God-ordained leaders helps sustain this understanding.

Women fare badly in this construction. Their testimony is held in contempt; they are pilloried if they are sexual in any overt way; and their competence to lead is questionable. The varied examples listed above demonstrate that white males win; women who protest their treatment by them are shamed, called nutty and slutty, or simply deranged. The need to prop up white male hegemony trumps their rightful witness, and the desire to protect patriarchy wins (at the cost of any egalitarian integrity).

While progressive Baptists are proud of their movement toward gender equity and inclusion of sexual minorities, we know that statistics still convict. Only 6.5 percent of senior pastors among Cooperative Baptists are women. American Baptists are only slightly better at approximately 11.3 percent. The data for the Alliance of Baptists shows more progress than these others. Surely there are break-out leaders among these ecclesial bodies, yet preference for a white male remains the default for churches. (The largest African American Baptist bodies lag in promoting the leadership of women, not to mention LGBTQ persons.)

Patriarchy is not just about gendered relationships; it is also about race. Projections about the sexuality of black men and women from a white perspective colors the national discourse.

Smith cites studies that demonstrate “white evangelical Christians are disproportionately likely to interpret the poverty and social disadvantage that many people of color face as the result of individual moral failures (and sexual failures …) rather than as systemic phenomena caused by forces that transcend any one person’s circumstances.” The horrific critique of the Obama presidency and his family and the current backlash from white nationalists signal the fear of those who anticipate their power eroding.

In the midst of the relentless election cycle in American politics, we once again see how hard it is to bury the patriarchal narrative. Persons of color have vanished from the contest for the Democratic nominee in the 2020 election. And the labeling of women as incapable of being presidential, because they are bitchy or bossy, continues. The old tropes of masculine strength are on display as candidates are subjected to analysis through the lens of evangelical social worth – white, straight, married – and the capacity to use religious rhetoric to promote a triumphant conservative agenda that remains a hierarchical ordering of gender and race.
Repentance and conversion of heart will be essential to rectify this ongoing diminishment of women, sexual minorities and persons of color. It is not easy to dismantle what has been projected as normative and how God intended things to be, but it is necessary if we pursue the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We can construe a better narrative where all who bear the image of God can flourish if we but have the will to do it.

 

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In an election year,remember that the ‘Golden Rule’ applies to politics too

 

Pastors and congregations, fasten your seat belts, secure your crash helmets and get ready. The 2020 elections are coming, whether we’re ready or not.

No doubt, some churches will choose to ignore the partisan fray and pretend nothing consequential is occurring outside the church walls. Others will wade in with their biases on full display, certain that God is on their side. A third, more helpful approach is for churches to engage this tumultuous political season thoughtfully and honestly.

This third way is possible only if we refuse to give in to despair. Yes, the rancor is frequent and intense, and the vitriol is often intensified by social media and talk radio. But in his book, The Soul of America, historian Jon Meacham reminds us we’ve been here before. And, believe it or not, it has been worse. My home state of Missouri still bears the scars of the bitter national debate over slavery and the ensuing Civil War. In this border state, the mistrust and hatred ran deep, even within churches.

“If the body of Christ cannot model unity in diversity during these months, we’re guilty of false advertising.”

The congregation I pastor in Jefferson City, Missouri, has no church minutes from 1861-1865. In 1861, Union soldiers confiscated and occupied the First Baptist Church building, using it as barracks. Near the end of the war, the building was used as a stable. Yes, our congregation can affirm that we’ve been here before, and it was worse. But we survived.

How do we live together in these uncomfortable, highly emotional and polarized times, awaiting the outcome of a momentous fall election? Here are five suggestions:

1. Distinguish between political and partisan. The gospel is political because it seeks to influence citizens regarding values. On the other hand, to be partisan is to endorse a particular candidate or party. Pastors are not only wrong to publicly endorse candidates; they are naïve to do so. Politicians will use pastors and churches to their advantage unless and until clergy push back and draw a line.

I happen to be writing this column on the birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), theologian, pastor and an early resister of Hitler’s attempts to co-opt the German church. Pastors today need Bonhoeffer’s courage – the courage to say no to secular power’s seductive lure and the courage to disappoint others in the name of truth.

2. Beware of idolatry. No candidate or political party should be blindly worshiped. The Kingdom of God is more than any human construct. When we make our personal political views equivalent to the gospel, that is idolatry.

3. Choose dialogue over monologue. Being prophetic in the pulpit is a worthy goal. But why should the pastor be the only one who speaks? Some topics are emotional and complex. They require a two-way conversation.

Moving toward one another instead of away from each other, being curious about another’s convictions, remembering St. Francis’ prayer about seeking to understand more than being understood – these hold great promise if we’re willing to do the work.

4. Practice the Golden Rule. Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NIV). Consider exploring “Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics,” a resource provided by a broad coalition of national Christian organizations, reflecting input from people on the right, left and in between. The material includes resources for worship, small groups, prayer and readings.

I recently shared with my congregation some practical suggestions from Golden Rule 2020. A sampling: “I will use precise and truthful language … without exaggerating. I will look for areas of mutual trust. I won’t use inflammatory words or derogatory names. I won’t question another person’s faith or patriotism.”

5. Above all, practice humility. It’s time for some of us in the church to dismount our partisan high horses and acknowledge that we never possess all the truth. Federal Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) once asserted that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” In these days of noisy, self-righteous assertions, a little humility goes a long way.

Oddly enough, the 2020 election might be the church’s best witnessing opportunity. Or our worst. After all, if the body of Christ cannot model unity in diversity during these months, we’re guilty of false advertising. We’ve billed ourselves as a community that transcends human differences. We have confessed that Jesus is Lord above all dogma, philosophy or creed.

If the Church of Christ cannot be a laboratory of love in this political season, what message do we really have for the world?

 

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Auschwitz Remembered among Acts of Hatred

Never again? Remembering Auschwitz amid enduring anti-Semitism and increasing acts of hatred

 

Bill LeonardIn his memoir, Night, the late Romanian Jewish writer and Boston University professor Eli Wiesel recalled his 1944 arrival “at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz”:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Auschwitz didn’t just steal Eli Wiesel’s God, soul and dreams; it murdered them.

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian soldiers occurred on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2020. The day before, the Washington Post published reporter Gillian Brockell’s account of the exploits of Witold Pilecki, “a Polish resistance fighter who voluntarily went to Auschwitz to start a resistance.” His secret reports to Allies were the first to describe the cruelties of what became the largest of the Nazi death camps.

Brockell writes of Pilecki’s 1941 arrival at the camp:

“Nothing could have prepared him for the brutality he found. As he leaped out of a train car with hundreds of other men, he was beaten with clubs. Ten men were randomly pulled from the group and shot. Another man was asked his profession; when he said he was a doctor, he was beaten to death. Anyone who was educated or Jewish was beaten. Those remaining were robbed of their valuables, stripped, shaved, assigned a number and prison stripes, and then marched out to stand in the first of many roll calls.”

“Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive,” an SS guard declared. “The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks.”

The gas chambers were not operative at that time, but the ovens were already at work. Brockell notes, “The only way out of Auschwitz, another guard said, was through the chimney.” Over a year later, Pilecki miraculously escaped, continuing his anti-Nazi resistance in Poland only to be executed by the post-war Soviet-controlled Polish government in 1947.

Few prisoners escaped Auschwitz. Some 1.1 to 1.9 million human beings died there, 90 percent of whom were Jews. Others included some 19,000 Roma (“Gypsy”) people, disabled and LGBT persons, and resistance fighters. The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as “Holocaust deniers” promulgate their lies, not only throughout Europe, but also in the land of the free and the home of “alternative facts.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asserts that such denial is an anti-Semitic “claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests.” It is often closely linked to white supremacist and other racist theories (that are often accompanied by biblical citations and allusions).

These two irreconcilable statements must be heard as one: Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago. Yet, anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.

“The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as ‘Holocaust deniers’ promulgate their lies.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League CEO, observes that violent “acts of Anti-Semitism are now the new normal.” On the decline from 2001, they have risen sharply in the years since 2014. These include a shooting in December 2019 at a New Jersey Jewish market in which two people died; a deadly firearm attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego in April 2019; and the death of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

The horrific words, “Jews will not replace us,” chanted in that white supremacist torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, continue to haunt the American psyche. A day later, African American scholar Jemar Tisby asked in a Washington Post op-ed: “Will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” At the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, might we add: “Will Christians finally take anti-Semitism seriously?” Certainly, many have – but, God have mercy, not nearly enough.

How might we extend those efforts?

First, let us confess to, and repent of, the church’s historic legacy of anti-Semitism by which medieval Catholics compelled Jews to convert to Christianity, often scapegoating them as sources of assorted social upheavals, and ghettoing Jews across Europe. (There were minority voices, like the 12th-century Doctor of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, who attempted to offer support for the Jewish community. Bernard wrote, “For us the Jews are Scripture’s living words, because they remind us of what Our Lord suffered. They are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight.”)

We Protestants have many anti-Semitic burdens to carry, beginning with Martin Luther’s 1541 diatribe, “On the Jews and their Lies,” which declared:

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy.”

Luther urged German Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and forbid their rabbis “to teach henceforth on pain of loss and limb.”

“Anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.”

Closer to history and home, many Jews and Baptists of a certain age painfully recall Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith’s 1980 assertion that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” And I’ve never forgotten Professor Glenn Hinson’s prophetic rejoinder: “Such is the stuff of which Holocausts are made.”

Second, American Christians, particularly evangelicals, should resist the effort to think of Jews and their place in the world primarily as vehicles in events leading up to the premillennial return of Christ. That attitude can conceal an implicit anti-Semitism that understands Jews, not as people of God, but as pawns of premillennial theories.

Third, 21st-century Christians must ever struggle to distinguish anti-Semitism from political critiques of certain actions of the state of Israel in responding to Palestinians and others in the endless conflicts of what seems the irreconcilable “Holy Land.” This is a daunting task, to be sure. (BNG columnist Wendell Griffen boldly walked this fine line in a critique that merits rereading in light of the so-called “peace plan” announced January 28 by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.)

Finally, the memory of Auschwitz provides a stark reminder to 21st-century America, challenging us to confront this critical moment in history. In A Spirituality of Resistance, Jewish philosopher/environmentalist Roger Gottlieb writes that “the Holocaust ‘prepares’ us” to confront the evils of our own time by remembering “how well-meaning, passive bystanders helped make the Holocaust possible.”

Gottlieb continues:

“The slaughter of six million Jews and five million other victims, carried out coldly and ‘rationally’ by civil servants and professionals as well as politicians and soldiers, by a ‘legitimate’ government and with the sanction or passive acceptance of much of the rest of the world, is an omen for the environmental ruin we are creating now.”

This week I came across this Holocaust Remembrance Day adage: “If we were to observe a moment of silence for all the victims of the Holocaust, we would have to remain silent for 11-and-a-half years.” And I remembered the words that bridge the Bible’s two Testaments: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud laments; Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.”

Never again, Yahweh, never again.

 

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